A new world in Egypt's desert; Cairo: As wealthy residents turn to the suburbs to escape urban problems, some experts see the beginning of economic segregation and a threat to national unity.


CAIRO, Egypt -- The names suggest kiddie parks or country clubs -- Dreamland, Royal Hills, Gardenia Park. Out in the desert wastelands surrounding Cairo, a new world is springing up -- one that, for better or worse, could determine the future of Egypt's teeming, overpopulated capital.

Long fed up with the pollution, noise, traffic and general hassle of Cairo life, upper-class Egyptians have started looking outward -- to the dozens of elite, gated communities being built outside the city.

Construction is nonstop -- and so is the debate about whether these new communities will save Cairo or finish it off.

Egypt has always been a place of rigid class divisions, but until now rich and poor had lived side by side in relative harmony. For lack of anywhere else to go, Egypt's elite stayed in the city, often turning the apartments in which they were raised into marble-lined palaces. But now, a growing percentage of the ultra-rich are choosing to get away -- out of the city and behind the walls.

"They see all of these urban problems, and they don't want to deal with it," says Assef Bayat, a sociology professor at American University in Cairo. "Those people who can afford to get out are getting out."

But only a very small percentage can afford that, and it's unclear what effect this new class-based division will have on a society that enjoys a widespread sense of national unity that crosses most class barriers.

Some warn that this is the start of a suburbanization trend that will play out much as the comparable trend did in dozens of American cities, ending with an elite, moneyed suburbia surrounding an impoverished, angry and crime-ridden urban population.

"This is the start of segregation," says Hisham Bahgat, a Cairo University architecture and urban-planning professor. He predicts that Cairo's city center will fall into complete neglect within another decade or so.

Bahgat argues that this new desert migration is merely an extension of an age-old trend. Whether it's in the desert or in luxury apartments or villas downtown, Egypt's elite, he says, "have always been hiding." But the hiding has been on an individual basis -- not groups of the rich banded together by class. The withdrawal of the wealthiest 10 percent from the city could be the start of a serious unraveling of Egypt's social fabric, he says.

"In Egypt, you had the [Arab socialist] egalitarian experience under [former President Gamal Abdel] Nasser. This is almost the end of that," Bahgat says.

Class tensions have risen in recent years as economic-liberalization programs backed by the International Monetary Fund have created a new-money class of theelite, even as the majority of the country waits to see the benefits of Egypt's much-hyped economic resurgence. Now that nouveau-riche class is looking to leave the rest of the country behind.

"You have 60 percent of the population with no jobs and no homes, and they're being teased by what they see of the top 10 percent," says architect and urban planner Sayed Ettouney. "The basic principle of any urban planning is the social mix. You don't want to encourage social divisions."

The idea of expanding development into Egypt's deserts started in the late 1970s under President Anwar Sadat.

As part of Egypt's peace dividend from the Camp David treaty with Israel, Sadat planned to use the rivers of foreign aid flowing into the country to siphon people away from Cairo into autonomous desert communities with their own industrial bases, housing, schools and services. But many residents of Cairo have been reluctant to leave behind tight-knit family bonds for an uncertain future in the hinterlands, and the desert push didn't start to take off until the early 1990s.

The most successful of those original desert cities is October 6 City, about 16 miles west of Cairo. Named in honor of the launch date of Sadat's surprise 1973 war with Israel, October 6 City boasts hundreds of thousands of residents, housing for several income levels -- heavily subsidized for the poor -- its own private university and more than 1,000 factories lured by a 10-year tax holiday.

Now the businessmen are taking over, and huge swaths of desert around October 6 and other public-sector desert communities have been snapped up by private developers.

A new road extension has reduced the commute to Cairo to about 20 minutes, and the developments are going up at breakneck speed. Much of this land was originally meant to be green space under the 1982 Greater Cairo development plan, which sought to create buffer zones to keep the new communities distinct from Cairo and from each other.

But a new, increasingly influential class of businessmen has co-opted government plans, and much of that proposed green space has been sold. The new private development push, Ettouney warns, is proceeding haphazardly, with little regard for planning, zoning, water resources or infrastructure burden.

"It's like an orchestra playing without a conductor," he says. "Everybody is just playing, and they're all motivated by short-term profit. The whole idea of these new towns is to have autonomous communities with housing, work and services. But what you have here is luxurious dormitories for the wealthy."

Next to vast tracts of unattractive, low-income public-housing towers are elite, gated enclaves with names like Beverly Hills, Dreamland (which boasts its own golf course and amusement park) and Greenland, where the cheapest plot (with custom-built villa) starts at about $230,000.

A visit to Greenland reveals a transplanted slice of American suburbia -- or at least the ultra-rich Egyptian vision of it. Pastel colors abound, and the villas (with model names such as Versailles, Nice and Cannes) boast Roman columns or California-style red tile roofs. Sometimes both combine into a unique Greco-SoCal experience.

"If they could transport the whole buildings straight from Orange County, they would," Bahgat chuckles.

But for now, this vision of a quiet, clean, whimsically Western life out in the desert is a bit of a mirage. Nobody is living in Greenland or Dreamland yet; they and their neighboring enclaves are mostly construction sites.

"Nobody has moved for the moment. Everybody has just bought land," says Eric Denis, head of the French government-sponsored Urban Observatory of Contemporary Cairo. "Maybe it's all just real estate speculation."

Still, planners say, the trend is just hitting its stride. American University plans to move its ultra-wealthy student body from downtown to the outskirts and several major sporting clubs -- anchors of middle- and upper-class social life -- are opening desert-city clubs.

"For better or worse, that's the future," Bahgat says. "The next generation of Egyptians will be born there."

Pub Date: 9/03/99

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